Under Bowden, Akron looks to Western Pa. for football help
By John Harris
Published: Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, 10:42 p.m.
Terry Bowden could have declined the opportunity to coach a team with back-to-back one-win seasons prior to his arrival or embrace the challenge because of the potential upside.
He chose the latter.
Bowden's second season as Akron football coach figures to be an improvement over his first, and he is starting to develop a clear Western Pennsylvania flavor on the roster.
The Zips are expected to eclipse last year's 1-11 record (including 0-8 in the Mid-American Conference), mostly Bowden is integrating more talented players who are developing a better understanding of his system.
While discussing why he took the job, Bowden repeatedly mentioned Western Pennsylvania as fertile recruiting ground.
His first recruit after being hired in late 2011 was Greensburg Central Catholic safety Zach Guiser. Akron since has added two other players with Western Pennsylvania ties, and the Zips have secured three commitments from local players for 2014.
“We have said from Day 1 that we see Western Pennsylvania like our home state,” Bowden said.
Five players on this season's roster hail from Western Pennsylvania: Guiser, a freshman; junior safety Bre' Ford (Bethel Park); junior offensive lineman Micah Lio (Knoch); freshman offensive lineman Michael Kish (Brentwood) and freshman quarterback Tommy Woodson (Gateway).
Early commitments for 2014 include Blackhawk quarterback Chandler Kincade and lineman Brock Boxen and wide receiver/defensive back Elijah Cottrill, both from Beaver Falls.
For Bowden, who played football at West Virginia and coached at then-Salem College in Salem, W.Va., it was a matter of doing what comes naturally: recruiting players from a talent-rich region.
“When your school's in Ohio, that's our (recruiting) area: Cleveland, Canton, Akron,” said Bowden, who played running back at WVU under coach Frank Cignetti Sr., who replaced his father, Bobby Bowden.. “We try to hit the entire state of Ohio and Western Pennsylvania into Pittsburgh. It's been huge for us.
“I understand the strong football tradition in Western Pennsylvania, which is just like it is in Ohio. And it's only (90 minutes) from our campus. I have an appreciation for it and felt it was a natural to recruit that way.”
Bowden's resume could be a tipping point for Western Pennsylvania recruits, who like that Bowden and several of assistants (Chuck Amato, Jeff Bowden, Terrell Buckley and Todd Stroud) have longstanding ties with Florida State. The Seminoles won two national championships and 12 Atlantic Coast Conference titles under Bobby Bowden.
“You've got a group of coaches who were at Florida State for years,” Beaver Falls coach Ryan Matsook said. “They were, at that time and still are, one of the top teams in the country. When you're listening to somebody talk, and they've done it before, that means a lot. That's not to down anybody, but how many programs can say, ‘This is what we did, and this is what we plan on doing again?' Those kids see that, and it's impressive to them.”
“That got Akron in the area when they recruited Zach,” Greensburg Central Catholic coach Dan Mahoney said. “They've been back to recruit two kids in our current senior class (quarterback Chase Keller and linebacker Nate Stone).”
Becoming the nation's youngest coach at 26 at Salem in 1983, Bowden won two West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles. In 1986, he became an assistant at Akron under Gerry Faust. A year later, Bowden became coach at Samford, a school where his father played and coached. Bowden coached quarterback Jimbo Fisher to a Division III National Player of the Year award at Samford (Fisher is now head coach at Florida State). Bowden also directed Samford's move to Division I-AA, where it reached the national semifinals in 1991.
In 1992, Bowden replaced Pat Dye at Auburn. Taking over a team facing NCAA sanctions, Bowden became the first coach to post an undefeated record in his debut season at a Division I-A school when he finished 11-0 and won his first 20 games.
Auburn finished 9-1-1 in 1994 and three years later advanced to the SEC championship game. In 1998, facing player discipline problems and issues with Auburn's administration, Bowden resigned following a 1-5 start.
After spending several years as a studio analyst and commentator for ABC, Bowden made a push for a couple of lucrative coaching jobs. He was passed over for openings at West Virginia and Georgia Tech before taking over at North Alabama in 2008, where he advanced the Lions to the Division II playoffs three times.
The Auburn experience changed Bowden's perspective about coaching.
“This (is) my fifth (coaching) job,” he said. “Four of them were losing programs I had to turn around. The other one (Auburn) was winning when I got there, and we had to keep winning.
“Get a plan and stick with it. Stay with your beliefs. Surround yourself with good people. Do the right things, and you're going to win football games.”
Based on his record, Bowden (141-73-2 in 19 seasons) said he believes he can win at Akron despite enduring his worst coaching campaign a year ago. Akron is 3-33 since 2010.
“You have to remember, I coached here in '86. We didn't have an on-campus facility,” he said. “With the amount of players we have in our area, which includes Western Pennsylvania, and the commitment this school has made, if they give us time, we'll turn things around.
“I think that's why we've been able to get commitments from kids in the Pittsburgh area because they see a bright future.”
“They're playing Division I-A football, and they play a great schedule,” Mahoney said. “Their facilities are unbelievable. When a kid goes over there and gets recruited, he obviously has interest because everything is new like their stadium (InfoCision Stadium opened in 2009 at a cost of $61.6 million). And with the Bowden name, it's obviously a drawing card.”
Matsook said Akron's recruiting strategy has been a perfect fit in Western Pennsylvania. The opportunity to play right away appeals to players also being recruited by Pitt and West Virginia, as does the Zips' fast-paced passing attack that ranked No. 16 last season — 30 spots ahead of Pitt and six spots behind West Virginia.
“I know speaking with Brock and Elijah, they've raved about their treatment from the Akron coaches and how upfront they were talking about the depth chart,” Matsook said. “They're really selling their passing game too. Kids want to get receptions. They want to catch the ball. That's a nice system to get into if you're a skill kid.”
If you're Beaver Falls' Boxen, attempting to choose between a mid-major such as Akron and a BCS program in the same vicinity, Akron becomes an attractive option. Like Blackhawk's Kincade, Boxen selected Akron over Pitt.
“Brock visited Connecticut, Penn State and Pitt. He had nice things to say about all those places, but he kept talking about ‘Akron, Akron, Akron,' ” Matsook said. “I said, ‘If you like it, why do you have to go to Pitt?' I think it will pay dividends for him.”
John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @jharris_trib.
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